Eight per cent of the country is Asian—but Asian players make up only a tiny fraction of professional footballers. Twenty years after the FA first flagged the problem, why has so little changed?by Jason Murugesu / April 23, 2019 / Leave a comment
It’s a topic that’s been written about every so often for the last twenty years: why aren’t there more British Asians footballers? The answer to that question is not a mystery. In fact, it is very straightforward. And all those who can affect change are aware of how it can be fixed.
Eight per cent of the country is Asian, and yet there are only 12 professional players who are Asian. There are just over 3,700 professional players in the UK. In other words, 0.3 per cent of British footballers are Asian.
The lack of British Asian footballers is ultimately not due to cultural differences (Asian parents not wanting their children to pursue professional sports), nor that British Asians are not interested in football (have you walked through a park recently?)
The reason is unconscious bias and prejudice on a massive scale. In other words: systematic racism.
While racism in English football is not comparable to the heady days of banana skins and extreme hooliganism, discrimination continues to thrive in the game in the subtlest and most-easily overlooked of ways. As the rapper Kanye West once said, “racism’s still alive, they just be concealing it.”
Last summer, Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling brought this matter to light when he took to Instagram to take a stand against the British press on the racist coverage of his personal life and that of other young black players. Sterling highlighted that footballers of colour are written about differently to white footballers, noting that identical actions by two players—buying their mothers large houses with their earnings—had been covered differently. “The young black kid is looked at in a bad light,” he wrote.
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Good morning I just want to say , I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point to heard I will speak up. Regarding what was said at the Chelsea game as you can see by my reaction I just had to laugh because I don’t expect no better. For example you have two young players starting out there careers both play for the same team, both have done the right thing. Which is buy a new house for there mothers who have put in a lot of time and love into helping them get where they are, but look how the news papers get there message across for the young black player and then for the young white payer. I think this in unacceptable both innocent have not done a thing wrong but just by the way it has been worded. This young black kid is looked at in a bad light. Which helps fuel racism an aggressive behaviour, so for all the news papers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all i have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity an give all players an equal chance.
Sterling’s challenge of the media made front page news and started a conversation. But racism exists in other ways too. Last November, West Ham under-18s coach Mark Phillips was suspended for his support of the Football Lads Alliance, which calls itself an “anti-extremist movement” but which, according to a Premier League warning sent to clubs, “is using fans and stadiums to push an anti-Muslim agenda.” (The group is supported by none other than Tommy Robinson.)
Last week, the Metro reported that Sporting Bengal—a grassroots Asian team from East London—walked off the pitch after accusing the referee of racism, with the coach even accusing the referee of saying before the game: “your lot are not winning this.”
This is not new. In 1996, the FA published a paper entitled ironically Asians Can’t Play Football, which concluded that scouts discriminate against Asians by physically and culturally stereotyping them.
Dr Daniel Kilvington, an academic in Media and Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University who has researched this topic extensively, told a conference last year that a white coach at a professional club had told him that, “They don’t like physical contact, I think that’s their problem. Why are they good at cricket?”
Kilvington tells me that he has interviewed “hundreds of people” on the topic and that the key finding was that “the scouting network is even nowadays overlooking British Asian players.”
I contacted football clubs located in cities with a large Asian population—such as Leicester FC, Blackburn FC, Arsenal FC and Manchester United—asking them how they were trying to get more British Asians into the game. All seemed initially interested to talk, but eventually told me that they’d rather not participate, citing other priorities.
It is hard to not to see the lack of engagement by these clubs’ PRs as an insight into what football clubs consider significant.
Kilvington goes on to say that “There’s this egalitarian belief in sport—if you’re good enough, you will get to the top. Clubs and scouts believe everyone is equal, but if you’re not looking at areas where Asians are playing football—that’s institutional racism. Clubs are unaware that British Asians are playing and good enough.”
A spokesperson for the FA told me that “In 2015, the FA introduced the first phase of its Asian Inclusion Plan called ‘Bringing Opportunities to Communities’, aimed at engaging with Asian communities and encouraging greater inclusion in the game.”
They add that they “continue to work regularly with Asian communities to ensure there is a clear pathway to participate in football.”
Kilvington notes, however, that even though the FA published its first paper on the topic in 1996, it took 19 years before the FA had an actual official plan on how to counter the lack of Asians in the game.
The few Asians playing high-level football in this country, Kilvington says he found in his research, had “non-stereotypical Asian names, or dual nationality… so that people didn’t really know they were Asian and so those stereotypes were less likely to be embedded in the scout’s minds.” (Think Neil Taylor of Swansea City, or former Newcastle striker Michael Chopra.)
The FA points out how many British Asians play grassroots football in local Asian leagues or have started playing football because of its Community Development Centres.
Again, however, this points to a lack of willingness to tackle the real issue. While Kick it Out, football’s equality and inclusion charity, has workshops for players and coaches on how to deal with racism online, no such seminar exists for coaches and scouts on how to recognise their unconscious biases against young footballers of colour.
How many talented English footballers have slipped through the net because of these collective biases, and a failure to take responsibility for them?
Ultimately, nobody is owed the right to become a professional footballer. One must be scouted at an early age, survive an arduous training regime, avoid injuries and get very lucky.
But the fact is that the lack of Asians in football is because most Asian kids aren’t even being looked at by scouts. Far from failing at a gruelling job, they aren’t being given the opportunity to pass the first hurdle.
Kilvington comments that all the questions I’m asking him, journalists were asking him ten years age: “Change is slow.”
And the truth is, change will continue to be slow. Even if the scouting network was overhauled today, we’d have to wait to another decade or so to reap the rewards.